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Published Date: May 9, 2024

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God’s Grace for the Breastfeeding Pastor

Editor’s note: this article won an honorable mention in the 2023 Writing Contest.

As I stood by the altar one Sunday morning, I heard my infant daughter crying at the back of the sanctuary. My husband held her in his arms and attempted to soothe her distress, but I still felt a tingling in my breasts, which was my body’s way of responding to the sweet, dissonant song of her whimpers. There was a clergy collar around my neck and milk pouring heavily into my chest, and I found myself grateful to be what might have once been considered a living contradiction: mama and clergy, all at once. I am a pastor, and I am a mother, and my calling is to be one who nourishes in the name of Jesus.

Being a working mother in general is not easy, and it is a particularly difficult challenge when you provide the one source of food for your child. Despite the gift of breast pumps and laws which dictate that time and space be allowed for relief from the unique pain of a milk letdown, it is a journey that is not for the faint of heart. As I continually try to maintain my own balancing act, I must also continually be reminded that breastfeeding is sacred. There is something holy in being able to embrace my children in this way. I have come to understand that a small mouth on a swollen nipple is a picture of God’s grace.

Breastfeeding as an Image of Grace

As a United Methodist, I cling tightly to the saturation of grace which so informs our Wesleyan theology. There are myriad channels through which we experience the loving work of God in and through us. Some bolster our own personal piety: prayer, Bible study, and individual spiritual disciplines; while others are communal: partaking of sacraments, corporate worship, and working together to bring about God’s Kingdom reality through mercy ministries and social justice efforts.

While I acknowledge that elevating breastfeeding so that it sits in a space next to such things as prayer and corporate worship might seem like a leap, the art of contextualization helps me to see God’s grace through those aspects of mundane life which are made holy by God’s presence. Breastfeeding is just one of countless riverbeds through which divine grace runs. Holiness saturates so much of our everyday lives, and it presents itself in different forms in shifting seasons in each unique life. Nursing a baby is not, in and of itself, anything magical and certainly does not make one a superior example of motherhood; indeed, a nourished child is a blessed child, however that sustenance comes to them. Rather, breastfeeding is simply one illustration of those elements of life which God can use as vessels for our own growth and experience of the love that cradles us so closely.

Some of the clearest pictures of God’s grace at work in and through me has happened when I am offering myself up as a sacrifice through breastfeeding. At the end of a long day, in the wee hours of the morning, or when I just do not want to be touched anymore, offering my breast to my child is me giving of myself. In those moments at the end of my rope, when weakness bubbles up and threatens to spill over, the words of Jesus move through me like a pulse: “This is my body, given for you.” Just as our Lord once offered his body and his blood to those who desperately needed it, so, too, do I get to pass everything I have on to the little one who relies on me for her very life. As I make that sacrifice, and as I feel the deep, resonant joy that gongs through me as I provide for my daughter, I learn more about the Lord who joyfully gave himself up for the sake of God’s children.

Pouring ourselves out like an offering of love takes us further into the heart of God. Breastfeeding is loving sacrifice, and loving sacrifice is the essence of God’s grace. 

Though these experiences are so very personal and enliven the intimate nature of the mother/child relationship, the phrase “it takes a village” comes into stark relief when a woman endeavors to breastfeed. That village is all the more important when it is composed of a nursing clergy mother’s flock. Feeding my child as an act of service is, by the grace of God, both deeply personal and a discipline which pervades my faith community.

Experiencing God’s Grace by Showing Grace to Each Other

Let us return to that Sunday morning when my daughter’s wails called my body to attention. She was in need of nourishment, and I was in need of support in both of my callings as they mingled with one another. That morning, I saw the grace of God play out in real time as my faith family rose to the occasion:

My husband reflected God’s grace as he sought to soothe our baby while I finished proclaiming from the pulpit.

The couple down the row from my husband reflected God’s grace as they held my daughter so that he could grab the diaper bag in hopes of bringing her some relief as the final hymn was sung.

My people reflected God’s grace as they parted like the Red Sea so I could get to her, encouraging me as I went.

As I am serving a two-point charge, my second congregation reflected God’s grace as they waited for me, willing to get started a minute or two late, just so my daughter’s belly could be filled.

We experience God’s grace powerfully through relationships, especially within the Body of Christ. When we bolster one another, we communally work toward the Lord’s vision of the Kingdom of God, which has come in part and will one day come in full. If a church has a shepherdess who is also a breastfeeding mother, it is a unique opportunity for all involved to experience the Holy Spirit’s movements and transformation. My family and I experience this communal picture of grace as our support system carries us along this road, lifting us up and leaning in to fill the inevitable gaps of my being a human trying to do so much. The grace of God comes to us through my flock rallying around this sacred mission of feeding a child. I like to think that they experience God’s grace in turn through watching that child grow in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and humanity (Luke 2:52). We all get to be drenched in God’s goodness through this process as surely as my daughter gulps and is satisfied.

The Bible Calls God a Nursing Mother

I would be remiss if I did not mention the words of Isaiah, which affirm that God is like a nursing mother who cannot forget the baby at her breast (Is. 49:15). God understands all of this; God cradles us close. Ultimately, that milk rushing into the space just below a mama’s heart is a chance for her and all those around her to know what it is to be greeted by, loved by, and nourished by God our Mother.

If you are nursing and preaching and nursing again, take heart and keep going. You are Christlike in your sacrifice and love. 

If you are blessed enough to be part of the ecosystem of one who nurses and preaches and nurses again, come together so that she may keep going. You are Christlike in your service and love.

Breastfeeding ushers in grace upon grace. Let it transform us; let it flow.

Photo by PeopleImages – Yuri A.

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